Tulare County dairy farmer wins exhibitor ‘hall of fame’

After nearly 60 years of showing cattle, Tulare County dairy farmer Joey Airoso acknowledged he’s “pretty well known” in competition circles.

Though he has taken home various prizes through the years, Airoso said he was “completely surprised” when he was named the 81st winner of the Klussendorf Award, widely regarded as the Hall of Fame for dairy cattle exhibitors.

“It’s one of the most humbling things that’s ever happened to me,” Airoso said about receiving the award.

Given in remembrance of dairy cow showman Arthur B. Klussendorf, the award honors people who demonstrate character, sportsmanship, ability, ambition and devotion to dairy cow events, according to the Klussendorf Memorial Association. Founded in 1937, the association announced this year’s pick in October during the 56th World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin.

Airoso, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, has been showing cattle at the World Dairy Expo since 1986. He started showing livestock at age 7 as part of 4-H and later FFA. He continued the tradition into adulthood, taking his animals to shows and fairs—and helping younger competitors get started.

“It’s a way to add value to our farm and our animals and create better animals,” he said.

Airoso manages a family dairy in Pixley that milks 2,600 cows and grows 1,600 acres of alfalfa, corn, wheat and pistachios. His family also breeds and sells registered Holsteins and Jerseys.

He described competing in bigger shows such as the World Dairy Expo as akin to playing professional football or training for the Olympics, as “there’s months and months of preparation.” Show animals are trained to lead and walk. They’re then washed, clipped and shined for exhibition. He noted how show cows with prized genetics have sold for as much as a million dollars.

“It’s big business,” he said. “There’s a fair amount of money involved if you are able to develop and show real high genetic animals.”

Airoso said winning the Klussendorf has meaning because he was selected by members of the Klussendorf Association, which each year votes to add a new dairy cattle exhibitor to its rolls with lifetime membership for his or her work. Airoso earned a silver trophy designed by Tiffany & Co. jewelers of New York City.

“When people of that magnitude have that kind of respect for you that they would even nominate you, and then you win, it’s pretty humbling,” Airoso said.

In a statement about the award, the association pointed to Airoso’s decades in the livestock exhibition circuit, having shown multiple All-California winners, a handful of Western National champions and several All-American selections. He was voted California State Fair Livestock Man of the Year in 2017 and earned the Al Hay Award at the Western National Show.

The association also recognized Airoso’s support for youth, such as when the Western Livestock Show was canceled in 2012 due to lack of state financing, and Airoso and other members of the South San Joaquin Holstein Association came together to save the dairy portion of the show. The event, now held yearly in Tulare, has grown to become the state’s biggest junior dairy cow show, attracting more than 300 head displayed by 200 juniors aged 5 to 21.

“One would be hard-pressed to find a more popular person showing cattle with his engaging personality and willingness to help anymore in need at a show,” association members said of Airoso in a statement.

Airoso said he plans to continue showing livestock, noting that it is one activity adults can do with their children and grandchildren.

“I think there’s something to be said for that, where kids are watching you do something, and then they want to do it,” he said.

Even though a big part of the fun is walking out into the show ring to exhibit the animal, Airoso said there are other benefits to the experience, such as meeting people, making new friends and traveling.

“Don’t get me wrong, winning is fun, but you don’t win all the time,” Airoso said, “so you really need to make the other part the fun part, and then when you win, it’s a bonus.”

Airoso is not the only Californian who has won the Klussendorf trophy. In recent years, the award has gone to Ken Melvold of Fresno in 2019, Gilbert Teixeira of Turlock in 2014 and Stuart Rowe of Davis in 1997.

The Klussendorf Award is different from the Klussendorf-MacKenzie Award, which was created in memory of Duncan MacKenzie, the 1961 Klussendorf winner. This year, the 32nd Klussendorf-MacKenzie Award went to Nathan Thomas of North Lewisburg, Ohio.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected].)

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